Road trip #goals: Bucket list Arizona drives from Catalina Highway, Route 66 to Red Rock Scenic Byway

For a trip you’ll remember forever, head out on the open road in breathtaking Arizona

Wednesday 03 May 2023 09:07 BST
From cacti to canyons, craters to forests – enjoy diverse vistas on a road trip through Arizona
From cacti to canyons, craters to forests – enjoy diverse vistas on a road trip through Arizona (Visit Tucson)

“Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road”, Jack Kerouac wisely penned about his travels across America. He’s right: there’s something both opportunistic and wildly romantic about setting off on four wheels and hitting America’s vast open roads – and what better place to do so than Arizona?

Chock full of kaleidoscopic landscapes, red clay trails and pastel rock formations, The Grand Canyon State is almost otherworldly, something you might only recognise from America’s blockbuster movies or old country lyrics. From picture-perfect scenery to the Wild West side of Arizona legend, here are five of the state’s most incredible road trips that promise sensory stimulation like no other.

Route 66

Hit the iconic Route 66 in Arizona and you’ll traverse the state’s varied landscapes (Visit Arizona)

Historic US Route 66—the Mother Road, also known as the Main Street of America—used to take drivers all the way from Chicago, Ill. to Santa Monica, Calif. along one continuous route. The ultimate road trip, Route 66 crosses the northern part of the state passing through small towns and rural areas. Arizona has some of the best-preserved stretches of Route 66 and still has more than 250 miles that are drivable, including the longest unbroken stretch from west of Ash Fork to the California state line, a total of 158 miles in length.

Starting your trip in western Arizona, visit the town of Oatman, a former mining town. Drive east along Sitgreaves pass in the Black Mountains and enjoy the stunning views as you head toward the city of Kingman. Here, you can learn Route 66’s history at the Arizona Route 66 Museum and then head across the street to eat at Mr. D’z Route 66 Diner. Thirty minutes east of Kingman is Hackberry. Originally a gas station on Route 66, it’s now a museum and gift. Just a forty minute drive further east is Grand Canyon Caverns, a popular stop during Route 66’s heyday. Continuing west, is the town of Seligman. Here is the home of Angel Delgadillo, known as the “guardian angel” of Route 66 in Arizona as he was instrumental in getting it designated a historical highway.

Continuing west, in the town of Williams, catch a ride on the Grand Canyon Railway train to visit the South Rim of the Grand Canyon or embark on the city’s Historic Route 66 Walking Tour. In the mountain town of Flagstaff, enjoy Route 66 like never before by running or biking on the non-motorized portion of the Mother Road that is a part of the Flagstaff Urban Trail System.

Forty minutes drive west from Flagstaff, stop at Meteor Crater, the best-preserved meteorite impact site on earth. In the town of Winslow, take a picture of yourself Standin’ on the Corner at a public park that commemorates the song Take It Easy recorded by the Eagles. Just outside of the town of Holbrook, discover Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park where paleontological trees became stone and then venture out to the Painted Desert where purple, red and orange sediments created colorful badlands.

The Catalina Highway Scenic Drive

This drive begins amid the verdant, cacti-clad surrounds of Tanque Verde (Visit Arizona)

It’s said that driving the Catalina Highway, aka Mount Lemmon Highway, is similar to embarking on a cross-continental journey in less than 30 miles – the biological equivalent of driving from the deserts of Mexico to the forests of Canada. The drive starts in Northeast Tucson, through Tanque Verde and the Coronado National Forest, featuring dramatic gains and elevation, encompassing different life zones and ecosystems along the way.

The plant life along the trail is just as diverse as the landscape; expect to meet mighty saguaros, deciduous trees and butterflies flitting between wildflowers – it’s particularly stunning in spring. Around every hairpin turn, something new is revealed, be that different flora and fauna from the last stretch of the drive or an entirely new gallery of rock formations. The varying elevations mean you’re also spoilt with consistent dramatic views and ample outdoor splendours. Get your camera ready for this one.

State Route 89A through Oak Creek Canyon

Pause en route to enjoy the stunning pine-clad vistas of Flagstaff (Tom Alexander)

So famous is Arizona for its staggering natural landscapes, huge silent canyons and mountains that seem to stretch for miles, it’s no surprise that road trips here are some of the best in the US. Oak Creek Canyon is often referred to as ‘The Cousin of the Grand Canyon’, and one of the best ways to see it is by four wheels.

This is a route for those who don’t have two weeks to put aside, taking only 35 minutes to complete and spanning 14 miles of jaw-on-the-floor beauty. The drive starts between the picturesque ponderosa pine forests in Flagstaff and continues down the length of Oak Creek Canyon, past crimson cliffs and deep naturally-formed pools. Expect plenty of sweeping vistas and backdrops reminiscent of your laptop’s screensaver.

The route takes you past Sedona through Red Rock County – keep your eyes peeled for Steam Boat Rock, Bell Rock and other familiar landmarks outlined on the horizon. It promises spectacular scenery and unforgettable moments in Mother Nature’s best work.

Apache Trail

There’s a dusty air of mystery about this south-westerly sliver of Arizona, and one of the best ways to learn more is to drive Arizona 88, also known as the Apache Trail. This scenic route uncovers the spurs-and-saddles side of Arizona’s history, winding through old mining towns, between an enclave of towering saguaro cacti, past cliff dwellings, and along lake shores and eroded canyons.

The trip starts in Apache Junction and ends in Fish Creek Canyon, where the road currently stops due to damage caused by flooding in 2019. The trip comes with breathtaking views around every corner; it’s what road trip daydreams are made of.

Red Rock Scenic Byway

Sedona’s Red Rock Country makes for a seriously breathtaking backdrop (Visit Arizona)

The Red Rock Scenic Byway is your gateway to the Red Rock Country of Sedona. The route is often nicknamed a ‘Museum without Wallsand passes through magnificent geological features, over natural bridges and between giant iron-infused red rocks. It’s more than just a promenade of dazzling views; it passes many of the area’s most famous attractions, like popular hiking routes, The Chapel of the Holy Cross and the Village of Oak Creek.

The drive starts in Sedona and takes you through Red Rock Canyon, and although it only takes around 30 minutes to complete, it’s recommended to set aside at least a few hours to make the most of the stop-offs, activities and viewpoints along the way whilst remembering to stick to the one most important rule of them all: remain respectful of land, animals and cultures.

To find out more about Arizona, discover incredible experiences, unmissable events, get travel inspo and plan your trip, head to Visit Arizona. You can fly to Arizona direct via British Airways or American Airlines – find out more here

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